That the UK’s young new PM is our racial brother has naturally pleased all Indians. But there is more to Rishi Sunak than his race. The brilliant short speech he made after King Charles III asked him to be the Premier is worth studying by every aspirant for office in any democracy, and by all students of politics.
The full text of the six-minute speech is easily accessible.
As significant as what he said in that speech was his earlier tight silence during the tense hours following Liz Truss’s resignation when either Boris Johnson or Penny Mordaunt or someone else might have become rival claimants for leading the UK government. One indiscreet word from him could have blown Mr Sunak off-track. But he refused, despite pressure from journalists, to be tempted or needled into departing from his decision to stay mum. Astutely, the 42-year-old allowed favourable economic and political currents to do their work.
When that happened, and he became the PM, he used brief but perfectly constructed words to pacify his most influential recent and potential foe: Boris Johnson, the former PM who has a raft of critics but also a battery of doughty champions inside the Conservative Party.
Said Sunak: “I will always be grateful to Boris Johnson for his incredible achievements as prime minister, and I treasure his warmth and generosity of spirit.”
It was only the other day, in an earlier round of contest, that the man to whom these words were addressed had ruthlessly destroyed Mr Sunak’s chances. Mr Sunak was equally effective in the words he used for his immediate predecessor as PM. Liz Truss had beaten Mr Sunak decisively in that earlier round before wounding herself irretrievably as PM.
“I want to pay tribute to my predecessor Liz Truss. She was not wrong to want to improve growth in this country. It is a noble aim, and I admired her restlessness to create change. But some mistakes were made, not borne of ill-will or bad intentions – quite the opposite in fact. But mistakes nonetheless, and I have been elected leader of my party and your Prime Minister in part to fix them. And that work begins immediately.”
We should remember, while considering Mr Sunak’s words, that an unspoken yet real undercurrent in the earlier Truss-Sunak run-off was about his race. We have to conclude that Mr Sunak found remarkably suitable indirect phrases to address it: “The government I lead will not leave the next generation – your children and grandchildren – with a debt to settle that we were too weak to pay ourselves…I will unite our country – not with words, but with action. I will work day in and day out to deliver for you. This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”
And then there was the clincher: “Trust is earned and I will earn yours.” Could an Asian Brit have said anything better?
No matter how persuasive in the immediate moment, words in the political arena quickly lose value. Often they return to taunt the utterer. Prime Minister Sunak’s policies, not his phrases, will shape his standing.
How he addresses the UK’s severely-strained economy and the Ukraine war are the intimately linked questions that will also impact the Conservative Party’s fortunes. In recent months, the Labour Party has come closer to smelling power than during any other period in the last 15 years. However, if Mr Sunak can show the Brits that he is earnest and realistic, does not bear grudges, and understands the difficulties of all his compatriots, he might achieve what has recently looked less and less likely: a Conservative victory in the elections that are due in January 2025 or earlier.
And if that happens, young Rishi Sunak might attain a longish innings as PM.
All that is speculation, of course. The length of time for which Mr Sunak’s disappointed Tory rivals can maintain their patience will have a bearing on events. If the Ukraine war burdens the British budget even more than it does at present, that would seriously hurt Mr Sunak’s agenda. For the moment, however, it is only appropriate to recognize Rishi Sunak’s remarkable feat. For Indians, it is also entirely appropriate to celebrate it. An Indian becoming the UK’s Premier is a milestone in our world’s history.
For clarity and correctness, it should be remembered that by nationality, Mr Sunak is a Brit. His duty is to protect and promote British interests. As has been underlined by those who know him well, Mr Sunak’s awareness of unspoken race-connected reservations about him will make him even more protective of British interests in UK-Indian negotiations.
I believe, equally, that it was entirely natural for Indians to appreciate the drama in Mr Sunak being identified on Diwali day as the next UK Premier, even if the formal appointment came a day later.
It would also be entirely natural for Brits to feel proud that they have enabled one seen by some as an “outsider” to rise to their country’s topmost political position. And surely people like P Chidambaram and Shashi Tharoor make a perfectly valid point when they say that Indians should take this example of broadmindedness to heart. It’s a quality we used to have.
I would like to conclude by pointing out that Rishi Sunak becoming the British PM is powerful fresh proof that the whole world has become the arena for the deployment of Indian talent, Indian energy, and Indian dedication.
(Rajmohan Gandhi’s latest book is “India After 1947: Reflections and Recollections”)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
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